Accelerator: Red tape bonfire

The new fire regulations - The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which came into effect in October 2006, changed the nature of fire safety law. The new regulations put the emphasis on preventing fires and reducing risk and make it the responsibility of employers to ensure the safety of everyone who uses their premises - and also the immediate vicinity of the premises. Crucially, this change does away with the need for a fire certificate, which, until the new Order, had been issued by the local fire service.

by Khalid Aziz
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It all sounds quite positive but, one year on, has the new law really achieved anything other than place yet another burden on business? Has it created more red tape to ensnare unwitting employers, particularly when it comes to yet another of those all-encompassing risk assessments that few understand but which produce yet more money-spinning non-jobs for the clipboard-wielders?

What is the fire service for? To put out fires - and, of course, it will still do that. When we dial 999 we can rely on the brave boys from the local fire brigade to turn up and do the necessary at home or at business premises. That bit still works very well. But the fire service's relationship with the business community began to deteriorate a year ago when the Government effectively drove them apart.

It's worth remembering how fire brigades first started in Britain. It was in about 1600 that organised brigades were formed in response to the desire of the new insurance companies to see some protection for the buildings they covered. 'Fire marks', the wall plates supplied by an insurance company as proof that you had paid your premium and were covered, were screwed to a building's facade. The trouble was that an insurance company's own fire brigade would often hurry past a blazing building that sported a rival's fire mark in search of a building bearing their own plate. So it soon made sense to amalgamate the brigades under the local authority. And that essentially is how things were for the next 400 years or so.

Local fire services enjoyed a useful and co-operative relationship with local businesses. Your friendly fire officer would come round and offer advice on fire prevention: the number, type and placing of extinguishers, for example. New buildings or conversions would be inspected by those who knew what they were talking about and a fire safety certificate would be issued.

Not a bad use of the business ratepayers' money, you might think. And it seemed to be working. Statistics show a steady de- cline in fires between 1995 and 2005. So why change?

What drives fire safety now is yet another mindless risk assessment, a series of pointless tick-boxes designed, it is said, to ensure that you have considered all the issues that might lead to a fire. All premises must have a 'responsible person', who can be the employer, occupier or owner of the premises. There must also be a 'competent person' who must, according to the new rules, 'have sufficient training and experience or other qualities to properly assist in undertaking the prevention and protection measures'.

It could only have been written by a lawyer, couldn't it? And now we begin to see what is happening here. Whereas in the past it was pretty simple to see that a competent person would be someone sent along by the fire service to inspect the premises, now the whole scenario is wide open to interpretation.

Two things have changed as a result. First, if there is a fire and someone is injured or killed as a result, lawyers can a have a field day with this barn-door legislation and argue for days about whether the competent person was indeed competent and whether their 'other qualities' were sufficient in degree or number to 'properly assist'. Second - and before we get to any possible fire - nervous employers are understandably turning, at some cost, to one of the burgeoning consultancies set up on the back of the legislation to help people do their risk assessment.

And who are these consultancies staffed by? Why, ex-firemen (we must learn to call them fire-fighters now - more PC). So that leaves you wondering what the fire service is doing now that they are not issuing fire certificates, and whether there has been a consequent reduction in the fire service element of business rates to reflect this reduction in workload and increase in consultancy fees paid by businesses.

Of course, there hasn't. After all, business rates don't even touch local councils. They are paid straight to the Exchequer. Set fire to these regulations, but do your risk assessment first.

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